Archive for July, 2009
Here are some Blog Carnivals that we participated in over the last week. Enjoy!
- Carnival of Taxes #55 (The Tax Firewoks Edition) was hosted by Don’t Mess with Taxes and you can find our post entitled Tax Day Discounts: Celebrating the Un-Celebratable listed there.
- Carnival of Debt Reduction (Stale Brat Edition) was hosted by Rocket Finance and you can find our post entitled How to Reduce Your Debt Significantly Without Tightening Your Belt listed there.
- Money Hacks Carnival #72 (Staying Cool Edition) was hosted by Personal Finance Playbook and you can find our post entitled The Main Event: The Coupon Mom vs. the Grocery Game listed there.
- Festival of Frugality #185 (The Barbeque Edition) was hosted by Your Money Relationship and you can find our post entitled Tax Day Discounts: Celebrating the Un-Celebratable listed there.
While we can all advance our positions and take sides in the ongoing healthcare debate, I think we can all agree that it would be nice to cut down on our own medical expenses in the meantime. So, in the spirit of frugality and bipartisanship, I thought I’d share a few tricks for saving on medical expenses.
STAY OUT OF THE ER. Emergency room treatment costs more than alternatives. Unless you’re really facing a legitimate EMERGENCY, you should do what you can to seek treatment elsewhere. While some people hit the ER because they don’t have insurance and know they’ll get some care there, folks should be aware, as Being Frugal notes, that there are many clinics that offer affordable care based on a sliding fee scale.
CALL YOUR DOCTOR. Before you go see your doctor, only to then be referred to another doctor or specialist, call first. In many cases, you can get the direct referral without making an unnecessary and expensive appointment. Unless you love sitting around reading back issues of Field and Stream while you wait an hour for a 45 second, “you need to see Dr. So-and-So” appointment, let your fingers do the walking instead.
MORE TELEPHONE MAGIC. Not only can you avoid the dreaded referral (dis)appointment with a phone call, it’s also possible to get actual medical advice via telephone. Instead of setting up an appointment, see if someone can help you via telephone. Some hospitals and clinics offer great nurse help lines you can call. In many cases, they can give you a few simple directions that will keep you from making a money-sucking appointment. Obviously, you can’t try this technique if you have a railroad spike sticking out of your temple or a snapped femur. In non-emergency situations, however, it can be worth making a call.
LOOK AT YOUR BILLS. Don’t assume the statement you receive in the mail is accurate. It might be, but in many cases people find overbilling or billing for services that weren’t rendered on their bills. It won’t take you that long to read through the itemization and it could save you a great deal of money.
A POUND OF PREVENTION. Stop smoking. Eat an orange instead of three Cherry Mash candy bars and a large Dr. Pepper (light on the ice, please). Consider testing the soles on your shoes instead of the world’s fossil fuel supply every once in awhile. You know the drill. Most of our medical expenses are avoidable. If we took better care of ourselves in the first place, we wouldn’t be seeing the doctor as often or popping all of those pills. We’d be saving on medical expenses by avoiding them.
NEXT TO GODLINESS. Practicing good hygiene and cleanliness can reduce the risk of contracting many illnesses. Wash your hands, touch items within public toilets only when you’re wearing a HazMat suit, don’t play “give me five” with your nephew right after he wipes is runny nose on his hand. This is really a subset of the other prevention factors, but I though it deserved it’s own entry because people often overlook this opportunity to stay healthier and to save dough on medical costs.
GENERICS. By now, this should be a second nature to anyone who’s not in the habit of burning cash for heat. Generics contain the same stuff as the name brands, they do the same thing and they cost far less. If you can fill your Rx with a generic, do so.
There you have it–seven very practical ways to save on medical expenses. Following these recommendations won’t end the healthcare debate in Washington, but they may save you enough money to make a trip out there to lobby your Senator or Representative.
I’ve spent more than a little time addressing coupon issues here and elsewhere. I realized that I have a pretty good idea of where to look for what I need. That’s a byproduct of experience.
But what about those who haven’t dedicated countless hours to finding the best places to find a coupon for $.25 off a bottle of Downy fabric softener? What’s it like when someone who’s relatively new to the Internet and/or coupon searching fires up Google and types in “grocery coupons”?
I decidcd to find out. I did a simple search for grocery coupons and this post outlines the first five sites I found and what they really have to offer.
On the day I checked this site out, they had a total of 89 printable coupons available. They were similar to the coupons you’d find in your Sunday paper. The interface for “clipping” the coupons you want is easy, but printing them requires the installation of special software. There’s a statement assuring users that this download won’t do anything malicious, of course, but I’m not really a big fan of rolling the dice with that sort of thing.
TWO: THE GROCERY GAME
We’ve covered The Grocery Game here before. It’s not really a place to find coupons. It’s more of a place to find out the best places and times to use the coupons that are otherwise available to you. There’s a ridiculously cheap trial membership available for The Grocery Game and I think it has a lot of potential for some people. However, it wouldn’t be of much use to the casual wannabe coupon clipper.
THREE: THE COUPON MOM
This is another site we’ve talked about before and many would consider it a free competitor to The Grocery Game. You do need to register (that’s free) to access a lot of the information and offers, but there are some free coupons readily available for those who don’t become a member. Interestingly, those coupons looked just like the ones from coupon.com. Same deals, same layout, same everything.
They claim to have an awesome selection of coupons. I can’t verify that. Why? You need to fork over $10 to become a site member. Then, every time you “place an order” for coupons, they charge you a 10% clipping fee. There’s an offset to all of that in the form of additional free coupons and they do claim to have an unconditional money back guarantee. For all I know, this is the greatest thing since $2.00 off sliced bread, but unless you’re willing to toss a ten-spot at them, it’s not worth a thing. It may be a gem of a site, but those who are just looking for some printable coupons to help them on their next run to the Piggly Wiggly won’t find much here.
So, what’s it like to approach the search for good grocery coupon websites like a casual user? Well, two of the first five options weren’t really what you’d consider a coupon site. Two of the others basically seemed to offer identical coupons and required installation of additional software. The other was a service with a subscription fee.
I love technology. I really do. In this case, however, I’d tell people they’ll be just as happy picking up a Sunday paper and a pair of scissors. There’s nothing THAT special about those first five search results. Don’t get me wrong, there are some legitimate savings opportunities there. It’s just a matter of how serious you are about pursuing them, I suppose.
I’m not much of a drinker these days. That wasn’t always the case. David “Danger Dave” Lampsen closed a few bars in his earlier years, if you catch my drift. And that meant that I would occasionally wake up at some point during the following afternoon with an agonizing headache and that sick burning nausea that so often follows a round of binge drinking.
My preferred response? A wise man would opt to rehydrate himself and to swear off the booze. I, however, subscribed to the “hair of the dog that bit you” theory of hangover elimination. I fought fire with fire, hangovers with Wild Turkey.
In time, I learned the wonders of moderation and of maturity. I avoided the hangovers in the first place and certainly wouldn’t respond to their occasional returns with a series of shots.
Why am I writing about my own history with alcohol in a post about Chase Home Finance? Well, it isn’t part of a twelve step program, if that’s what you’re wondering. I bring up the old “hair of the dog” colloquialism because it seems a fitting description of Chase’s strategy for dealing with mortgage crisis. Instead of backing away from lending, they’re doing more of it. A lot more.
By now, we all know the basic outline of how the housing market went down faster than Jager shots at a frat party. The banks made generous loans to folks who were ill-prepared to handle them. As these sub-prime loans began to go bad, it set off a chain reaction that has encouraged our current yucky economic state.
One of the lenders who made more than a handful of those doomed mortgage loans was Chase Home Finance. They managed to put themselves in enough trouble that they’re now slated to receive a huge chunk of change from Uncle Sam just to insure that they don’t fail.
So, what do you think Chase Home Finance has been doing lately?
Well, they’ve been spending a great deal of time in courthouses, for one thing. That’s because they’re filing suits left and right as they’re forced to foreclose on a city’s worth of defaulted mortgages. If you do a Google News search for “Chase Home Finance, LLC“, you’ll find yourself staring at a seemingly neverending list of people Chase is dragging into court because of they’re inability to make payments.
A serious analysis of the data indicates that anecdotal evidence like that does give us a fairly clear picture of what’s happening, too. Foreclosure numbers remain very significant–and that includes those with which Chase Home Finance is involved.
But that’s not all they’re doing. They’re also making a point to take a healthy dose of the hair of the dog. Woof!
You might think Chase would be reluctant to go after more and more home lending in the aftermath of the last few years. You’d be wrong. They’re strategy seems to be to solidify their place as one of the biggest home lenders out there.
A recent New York Times report explains that one of the reasons Chase’s first quarter numbers for ’09 look a little better than one might expect is because they’ve been acquiring more notes:
As independent mortgage companies and brokers closed last fall, and major players like Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo swallowed up troubled rivals, lending profit margins widened, doubling at big banks amid a refinancing wave during the first half of the year, analysts said.
Right now, Chase is picking up more mortgages and they’re playing the game on our dime.
So far, it’s working. Their numbers are on an upward trajectory. We can only hope that this means they’re cherry-picking the right assets from the mortgage companies that bit the dust and that Chase isn’ t picking up too many weak mortgages like the ones currently involved in all of those foreclosure suits.
Then again, if the folks at Chase Home Finance were capable of making those quality decisions while avoiding the urge to overextend, we might not be having this conversation in the first place.
It’s enough to drive you to drink.
I’m a pretty trusting guy. I have my limits, though. There are two different groups of folks in whom I put very little trust—the folks who run big insurance companies and dentists.
I’m REALLY not a big fan of dentists. It’s not because of the pain associated with having some guy ramming a drill into my mouth, either. I don’t fear the pain. I just don’t like the invasion of personal space that’s associated with dentistry. What happens in my mouth is my business!
And I’m not really a big fan of insurance companies, either. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of insurance on a conceptual level. It’s necessary stuff. The companies themselves, however, seem dedicated to the proposition that they should find ways to increase David Lampsen’s rates on a regular basis and engage in incredibly confusing and slow-moving behavior every time they actually need to cover part of a bill.
So, it may come as a surprise to discover that I have a few good things to say about Aetna dental insurance.
Now, unless you live within a cloistered monastery or within a Rumspringa-free Amish community, you’ve probably heard of Aetna. They are a big ol’ insurance company with lines that run from catastrophic health coverage to pet insurance. That’s right, Aetna will insure Mr. Dandy Pants and Princess Tabbytha, bringing a smile to even the most ill-tempered crazy cat lady!
They also cover dental insurance.
When you visit Aetna’s site to look into dental insurance, you’ll find that they divide their dental policies into two groups. One is for anyone from a teething baby to a 49 year old. The other is for the 50+ crowd. That division seems to have a lot more to do with the prices points than it does with the actual nature of the available policies. In addition to those individual plans, they also handle group and family policies.
Aetna describes their product line for the dentally damaged:
Aetna Individual Advantage Dental has two plans to meet your needs — the Aetna Individual AdvantageSM Dental PPO Plan and the Aetna Individual AdvantageSM Dental PPO Plus Plan. They both offer coverage for:
- Preventive care services such as cleanings, x-rays and more
- Basic care like fillings, simple extractions, root canals, basic restorative work and more
- Major services such as bridges, crowns, dentures and more
Obviously, that’s about what you’d expect from a full-featured dental plan. But as you dig a little deeper into the various Aetna dental insurance options, you soon find that they offer a lot of individual flexibility, including some interesting hybrid plans.
I particularly like the idea of the Aetna Dental Care Reward policy. That particular policy creates incentives for maintenance and preventative dental car. If you make a point of seeing the dentist regularly and nipping problems in the bud before they get out of control, the policy rate will actually drop.
That’s right, it does the logical thing (price declines in the face of evidence suggesting that the buyer will be less likely to have a major claim), while other insurers are happy to increase rates no matter what, Aetna dental insurace seems happy to reward good behavior.
This Aetna dental insurance option allows buyer to choose from dentists in nearly 100,000 locations to fill out the PPO options.
The POP side of this plan will allow you to choose from almost 100,000 locations, so it should be fairly easy to find a dentist in your area that you can trust.
Don’t think for a second that I’m softening my hard line on dentistry and the insurance racket. I still don’t trust either bunch. But if you need dental coverage, you might want to look at Aetna’s offering. They have some good programs.
Have you heard about the current economic state of California? Due by midnight on July 1st each year, the yearly budget for the 2009-1010 fiscal year is late. Why should you care, right? Being the eighth largest economy in the world, California’s budget crisis is bound to have an impact on some of you. With a budget gap of $26 billion dollars, the state is dealing with some serious money issues.
Hopefully your personal budget at home isn’t seeing the kind of shortfalls the California budget is dealing with. At the Lampsen home, we’re getting by better than many I’ve talked to, but “doing well” in a downturned economy is not saying much. We’re still at the point where if unexpected money shows up, it’s greatly appreciated, and just that very thing happened the other day. An unexpected bonus came through at work — a couple American Express Gift Cards.
If you haven’t purchased or received these before, they’re basically like cash. You don’t have to redeem them at a specific coffee shop, bookstore, sporting goods outlet. You don’t even have to go to a chain restaurant and sit in a booth surrounded by historic memorabilia. No, these American Express Gift Cards can be used anywhere that American Express is accepted. Apparently this equates to over a million places.
Receiving unexpected cash flow is wonderful. I feel sorry for the vendors who provide the State of California with great service month in and month out, only to receive IOUs as payment. Controller John Chiang started sending them out July 2nd, when the budget failed to pass. In the past, it was the employees who received the IOUs, which pay interest at somewhere between three and four percent–not bad, if you’re cash-rich and can wait until October (or whenever the budget eventually passes) to collect your money.
So far $355 million in IOUs have been sent out, mostly to 90,000 small businesses, and tax payers who are due a refund. The world’s eighth largest economy is in trouble. To make matters worse, three top national banks — Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase — all stopped accepting the IOUs as of last Friday.
I think there are a few business men and women out there hoping some American Express Gift Cards would show up in their mailbox, too. Available in amounts from $25-$3000, these little gift cards can buy everything from a used car to a tank of gas for that used car. I suppose that the high price of gas would make a $25 gift card more appropriate for a week’s worth of coffees as opposed to a tank of gas.
I suppose California State employees should be happy they actually still need to buy gasoline for their car, considering that they have a job and all. Though missing four days a month due to furloughs is probably hitting their pocketbooks in a rather unpleasant way. Surely if Governor Schwarzenegger and lawmakers can’t come to some agreement on how to close the budget gap within the next few months, there are employees who are going to be seeing pink slips in their inboxes. An even greater number will probably see IOUs.
At times like these, when the news is filled monetary doom in certain sectors of the government or financial market, I smile knowing that in the Lampsen home, we’re “doing well.” Still, the unexpected cash never hurts and certainly isn’t turned away. I’ll take a gift card over an IOU any day, and a card equal to cash is even better. Best of all is that unlike cash, if the American Express Gift Cards are lost or stolen, the unused portion can be replaced or refunded. That kind of financial protection is appreciated in a time like the present.
HSBC Auto Finance discontinued its operations (at least in terms of issuing new car loans) in August of 2008. Based on a review of several consumer complaints, I’m willing to bet that decision didn’t result in too many tears from anyone other than the employees who lost their jobs.
HSBC, who specialized in sub-prime auto loans, closed shop in 2008. SubPrime Auto Finance News reported the story like this:
“The company discontinued new auto loan originations from dealer and direct-to-consumer channels in July 2008 and is only originating branch loans until a third-party provider can be found. The portfolio amounted to $11.5 billion at the end of September, down nearly 12.5 percent year-over-year, and the portfolio will continue to amortize over time,” executives said.
HSBC broke the news like this:
HSBC has made the decision to exit the Auto Finance business in the U.S.. As a result, HSBC Auto Finance will discontinue offering auto loans to its customers effective August 6, 2008.
However, HSBC Auto Finance will continue to service and collect on its existing portfolio of customers as their loans mature.
It doesn’t appear as if HSBC closed its lending operation directly because of customer complaints. The auto finance element of the Household Bank empire was just flat-out losing money, apparently. They decided to cut and run to focus their attention elsewhere. Now, one could argue that all of the consumer noise made things so tough that it led to things gettin’ ugly, but I’m guessing the decision had more to do with the overall economic picture. Household HSBC Watch was on top of the story a year ago and provided some information from an unnamed source that summed up the HSBC plan with respect to that little chunk of the massive Household Bank empire:
This is nothing new for HSBC, closing units that continue to lose money. We will see, as HSBC continues to focus on the mortgage business. The same day the NY Times said that the subprime mortgage crisis has finally hit bottom. Hope this works out for them.
Okay, let’s get the laughing out of the way right away. They moved away from car loans to focus on the ultra-lucrative subprime mortgage industry, huh? I think we can all probably guess how that worked out for them! Talk about going from the frying pan right into the fires of economic hell, huh?
As it turns out, HSBC Auto Finance may have deserved to die. Every big finance company gets its share of complaints, but those who have a problem with HSBC offer some compelling arguments.
The guy who was getting eight phone calls a day after answering HSBC’s question on the first call paints an ugly picture of the outfit’s customer service (and listening comprehension skills). Though his complaint eventually sort of dissolves into the histrionics that so often accompany consumer grips, this criticism of HSBC isn’t/wasn’t rare. I found several people saying the same thing about the way HSBC’s fingers did the walking a little too often.
RipOffReport features no less than 45 complaints for HSBC Auto Finance. I bet you could find others there by using “Household Bank Auto Finance” or other variations of the company name. While many of the complaints are the usual whining by people who failed to make their payments on time and just don’t like experiencing consequences for their actions, others are pretty persuasive. By all accounts, it looks like this operation wasn’t ran spectacularly well.
I’m sure that the loss of a subprime auto lender wasn’t too exciting for all of those “we’ll approve everyone and/or his pet cat” auto lots out there, but I’m pretty sure that more than a handful of people were happy to see them leave the sector. And it still cracks me up that their master plan was to double down on the subprime mortage industry in 2008. Ouch.
HSBC Auto Finance: Gone… but hard to forget!
If your the kind of person who really needs a lot of third party validation, just gripe about how evil the credit card companies are. Everyone will agree with you. Next to neo-Nazis and that Sham-Wow dude, there are few other people held in such low regard as those who run credit card companies. If the card folks aren’t the living embodiment of Satan, they are certainly on good terms with ol’ scratch.
The federal government has initiated a run of rule changes that will kick in next year with respect to the way credit card companies can pound on consumers. That might be good news down the road, but until those changes become the law of the land, it appears as though those bastards holed up in Dover, Delaware, offices are hellbent on screwing the average credit card-carrying American as much as they possibly can.
That’s not a very nice thing to do in a recession, is it?
Think about something for a moment, though… The recession that’s making it tougher for so many people to send off those monthly CC payments is also affecting th ecompanies themselves. In other words, they’re bleeding money like there’s no tommorrow, too.
What does that mean to you? It means that those devilish lenders may be ready to cut you deal. They need to find a way to creep back into the black, and that means they’re primed to do a little negotiating.
The perfect example is trying to get teh credit car issuer to drop the interest you’re paying. If you’ve found a way to make your payments on time for a while, you’re in a fairly decent position to bargain for a rate cut.
This guy reports getting cuts from just about anyone who’ll talk with him. His strategy involves making a phone call, getting a supervisor on the horn, and asking for a lower rate. It works.
The same logic applies to slightly more dramatic situations, too. Did you miss a few payments because of some unforeseen situation? If so, try to cut a deal. The card isssuer won’t do it to make you feel happy. He’ll do it to keep your business and because he recognizes that the odds of complete repayment will increase with terms you can actually meet on a month in/month out basis.
The bottom line is that the card company wants you to keep sending those payments in. They know that if you file for bankruptcy, you’ll probably go with a Chapter 7, which would probably result in a complete discharge of that unsecured credit card debt.
The upside to all of this is that there’s no serious risk involved. We’re talking about one phone call. That’s it.
Those little princes of darkness are more than happy to try to wring every last penny out of your handbag in reaction to the economic slowdown. What’s good for the goose, however, really is good for the gander.
Listen like a goose here. You’re probably paying too much on yourdit card. Start paying less. How? Ask. You’d be surprised how happy the big compaies are willing to negotiate.
Don’t bother trying to get a deal from the person who answers the phone when you call the CC company.Tthat first line of telephonic defence isn’t going to help you out. You need to ask for the supervisor. Ge the squeaky wheel.
Here are some Blog Carnivals that we participated in over the last week. Enjoy!
- Carnival of Debt Reduction (Waffle Iron Day Edition) was hosted by Mighty Bargain Hunter and you can find our post entitled How to Reduce Your Debt Significantly Without Tightening Your Belt listed there.
- Festival of Frugality #184 was hosted by My Frugal Adventures and you can find our post entitled Saving Some Green on Fresh Greens at the Farmers Market listed there.
I received an invitation to join the American Association of Retired People (AARP) back in the mid-80s, several years before I graduated from college. They sent me one of those plastic “membership cards” you sometimes get with solicitations via mail and it had my name stamped right on it. I carried that sucker in my wallet for years as a gag.
Now that I’m getting a little older, I realize that the next time I get an AARP offer will probably be about the time I actually qualify for one. That’s a little disturbing, to tell yout the truth.
And “disturbing” is a good segue to a discussion of our current healthcare problem in America. The cost of medical care is mind-boggling and I think that even the most conservative and liberal folks around can agree that we have a real problem. There are too many people without insurance or who are under-insured.
I’d like to think that we’d all like to see people carrying adequate insurance to protect their financial interests and to guarantee necessary medical treatment. That should be true whether you’re head over heels in love with a single payer system or if you’re a laissez faire buff who’s ready to see the government walk away in favor of market solutions.
The AARP seems to have a strong interest in a better system, too. They’re always lobbying for reforms they believe will better serve their membership base. They’ve been actively involved in Medicare issues for years and have become a formidable lobbying force.
The AARP also offers insurance policies to its members. There really isn’t such a thing as “AARP health insurance” in a strict sense, though. The organization has actually forged relationships with insurance companies like UnitedHealth Gruop and offers their policies to the membership. So, while people are actually buying a policy through a different provider, it’s still often referred to as “AARP health insurance“. These sales constitute somewhere between 25% and 35% of AARP’s revenues.
All of this seems perfectly reasonable on its face. The AARP sticks up for the interests of its members in terms of legilsative reform AND offers them what the organization believes to be quality insurance projects.
When you consider things a bit more closely, however, this arrangement may very well represent a conflict of interest.
In 2006, for instance, critics accused AARP of softening its support for drug reimportation reform that would make it easier for Americans to purchase prescription medications in Canada in order to save money. Some argued that the AARP’s seemingly modified stand on the issue stemmed from a recognition that its own financial interests would be ill-served by great re-importation. As one observer questioned, “Is it a major conflict of interest for AARP to claim to be a benevolent spokesperson for older consumers, when the “issues” are extremely important to their financial well-being?”
Many feel that the AARP has failed to support the right kinds of Medicare reform over the years. The alleged reason? A significant percentage of AARP health insurance sales involve products designed to “fill the gaps” in Medicare coverage. If Medicare were properly repaird, critics argue, AARP would stand to a lose a lot of business.
It’s not hard to see the potential for conflict of interests, even if you don’t believe the AARP has yet failed to support its members best interests. There’s a natural potential tension between marketing insurance products and lobbying the government for reform of the healthcare systems.
An NPR story pointed out just how tricky the situation can be when discussing 2007 efforts to deal with the health care crisis:
“And its new contracts are making AARP’s politics even more awkward. As part of its deal with United Healthcare, AARP will become the largest single sponsor of private Medicare health plans under a program called “Medicare Advantage.” Yet the group is lobbying to reduce payments to those Medicare plans, which analysts say are being overpaid by the government.”
I’m not ready to echo the sentiments of long-time AARP foe and former Senator Alan Simpson. Simpson was quoted as saying, “If there was a sublime definition of conflict of interest, it would be AARP from morning to night.” I’m not at that point, but his words do remind us to look closely at what the AARP does and why they might do it. It may not always be a matter of benovolence for its membership.
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